LADDERING THE FIREGROUND

As ladder companies arrive at the scene with two- and three-person crews, how can they perform traditional truck tasks, and in what order?

Editor’s note: This article is based on information presented at the Fire Department Instructors Conference Hands-On Training class “Truck Company Operations: Laddering.” H.O.T. team members included Mike Ciampo (lead instructor), Walter Webb, Mike Shunk, Pat O’Connor, Dana Hannon, and Mathew Rush.

A common phrase heard in the fire station today is, “We aren’t fighting fires like we used to.” True, fires are much hotter and more intense than they have been in previous years, primarily because of an increase in the production of synthetic compounds, namely plastics. New plastics and energy-efficient construction and compartmentalization lead to hotter, blacker smoke and quicker flashover rates.1 The average fire department is forcing the front door right about the time flashover occurs.2 Are we fighting fires differently? Absolutely!


According to the National Fire Protection Association, the number of fires in the United States has dropped nearly 50 percent since 1977. However, at the same time firefighter injuries and deaths were reduced only 20 and 35 percent, respectively, and both rates have remained fairly constant since the early 1990s.3 Aside from a noticeable spike in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, we are still experiencing the same number of fires as during the middle part of the century, a time when many of the tactics we use today were invented.4 If fires are going down and we as a fire service are not as busy, then why is there not a noticeable difference in firefighter deaths and injuries between now and “then”?

Fires are different today. Our mission and training are dedicated more toward community service and EMS. We are using personal protective equipment so advanced that we are pushing into fire areas farther than ever before. We must revert back to the basics and train for our bread-and-butter operations.

At FDIC Indianapolis during Hands-On Training, we stress the following ladder basics. The information contained here is not new; it is a review of different disciplines taught over the years combined with tricks of the trade.

When approaching the fireground, it is the responsibility of all personnel to size up the scene. To accomplish this, ask yourself, Why should we ladder the fireground? When? Who? Where? How?


You ladder the firegound for three reasons: life, access, and ventilation. Laddering for life accounts for firefighter safety, of paramount concern on upper floors. It allows firefighters to get out of the structure when conditions deteriorate and normal egress routes are compromised. It also accounts for victim safety. Many times the quickest way or the only way out for victims is by fire department ladders. Laddering for access to the fire building speaks for itself, although the methods can vary. Laddering for ventilation means there must be ladders to every occupied (or potentially occupied) floor. Anytime there is a structure fire in a multistory building (two or more stories; high-rises are subject to different rules), there should be a multitude of ladders in place. Building size will dictate the number of ladders.

Every fire department should have very specific standard operating procedures on who is to ladder the fireground. Obviously, this is truck work, but what if two ladder companies respond? Perhaps the first-due ladder company should be the inside team (forcible entry, search, and rescue) and the second-due ladder company should be the outside team (laddering, vent-enter-search, and ventilation). If you have a smaller department that does not have a truck company and must rely on the engine company to ladder the fireground, your SOPs will reflect those needs.

The FDIC H.O.T class was comprised of three stations with very different scenarios: basic ground laddering skills, rescue with ground ladders, and aerial use and placement.

Station 1: Ground Ladder Basics

As staffing levels continue to decrease, the fire service is finding itself greatly overtasked on the fireground. As ladder companies arrive at the scene with two- and three-person crews, how can they perform traditional truck tasks (search and rescue, laddering, ventilation, forcible entry), and in what order? One tactic we teach at this station, developed by Dave Gallagher of the Huber Heights (OH) Fire Department and Bob Swick of the Fairborn (OH) Fire Department, is called the ladder drag. The ladder drag is an effective, easy, and safe method for one firefighter to get a multitude of tools to the fireground.


We ask a firefighter to get a 28-foot extension ladder, a 14-foot roof ladder, a pike pole, and a personal tool from the ladder truck to the fire building-in one trip. Most firefighters try to balance a ladder on each shoulder and muscle the tools to the building. But with the ladder drag, the firefighter can easily get the ladders and tools to the fireground: Pull out the 28-foot extension ladder and lay it on the ground with the fly section up (see photo 1). Extend the hooks on the 14-foot roof ladder and hook them on the third rung from the tip of the 28-foot extension ladder. Place the pike pole inside the roof ladder hook attachment bracket so that it is secure and will not move. Using your legs, pick the ladders up at the second rung in a “biceps curl” and drag them to the fire building (see photo 2).

You can perform the ladder drag with many different sizes of ladders, depending on what the building size-up dictates. You can also assemble the ladder at the third rung from the butt section (the roof ladder and extension ladder will be tip-to-butt) so that you can drag the ladders directly to the base of the building in preparation for a single-person raise.

When choosing a pike pole, use a 12-, 14-, or 16-foot pole so you can ventilate second-floor windows from the ground. You can always place a six-foot pole, for inside work, on the opposite side of the roof ladder.


Notice that it takes only one arm to do the ladder drag. With your free hand, carry another tool. Alternate methods for the ladder drag include using a salvage cover over the ladders and placing additional tools (saws, rope, and so on) on the cover. This can also effectively get more equipment to the building.

Keep in mind that the ladder drag is just that-a drag, not a sprint. Take time to continually size-up the building as you approach, while saving energy to complete the assigned tasks. Once there, you can ladder the building and horizontally ventilate first- and second-floor windows. It is very important to note that you should ventilate the windows only after communicating with the attack engine and other interior companies, to provide for an effective fire attack.

Where should ladders be placed? As the firefighter approaches the building, size-up dictates ladder placement. How many floors are there (and which will be occupied by firefighters)? Will roof access be needed? In what part of the building are the victims in the most danger? These are all simple questions the firefighter must ask. Helpful hints that will make laddering operations run smoother include the following:

  • Do not place ladders in front of entry or exit points-keep these areas free for fireground operations and victim egress.
  • Do not place ladders over windows or doors when going to upper floors or the roof. Should fire vent out a window or door, it will compromise the ladder and its use.
  • Always place the tip of the ladder just above the windowsill when planning on entering the building-never place the ladder with rungs through the windows. This is a much-debated topic. Many books and training manuals state that you should place the ladder with three rungs through the window for safe firefighter entry and exit. At the FDIC, we maintain that it will be very difficult for a firefighter with full protective gear to safely enter through a window this way with the products of combustion billowing outward. In addition, should interior conditions deteriorate and firefighters have to get out quickly, they will NOT be able to do so with a ladder placed three rungs through the window! Thus, at the FDIC, we teach all students to always place the tip of the ladder just above the sill when planning to enter the structure.
  • “Make a window a door.” Clean out all the glass and the window sash from the window assembly. Take a tool and run it along all four sides of the window.
  • If the ladder is on uneven ground or a slope, use a wedge (or cribbing) to balance the ladder.

Firefighters at this station also practiced the following:

  • “Rolling” a raised ladder down the building. This tactic affords one firefighter the ability to quickly and safely maneuver the ladder to different locations.
  • Ventilating second-floor windows using the 24-foot extension ladder. Once you raise the ladder to the proper height (the height to the top third of the window), bring it down all the way through the sill. If you start at the top third, glass shards will not ride down the beams of the ladder. Keep in mind, however, that this tactic can be much harder with energy-efficient windows.
  • Removing HUD windows with a halligan tool while using the leg lock maneuver. Place the ladder to the leeward side of the window so you are positioned just below the top sill. This is an effective and safe position from which to work.

Helpful hints when taking tools up a ladder include the following:

  • Always maintain contact with the ladder beam. With a tool in one hand, grasp the inside of the ladder beam with the other hand as you climb. This way you are always in contact with the ladder in case you lose balance.
  • You can hook your pike pole several rungs ahead while you climb. This way you can use both hands for climbing or carrying another tool.
  • Rest the adz/hook end of a halligan tool on your clavicle/neck area while you climb up or down a ladder. This frees both hands for climbing. This maneuver takes a little practice and getting used to.
  • When carrying roof ladders to the roof on a ground ladder, extend the hooks before climbing and ascend with the hooks out and away from the ladder. This keeps the hooks from tangling with the rungs and allows fast and safe operations once at the roof.
  • Mark the balance points of all ladders with reflective tape. This has several advantages. First, you can quickly identify where to balance the ladder on your shoulder when carrying it (this also applies to carrying a roof ladder up a ground ladder). Second, when carrying a 20-foot roof ladder to the roof (on a ground ladder) with the two-person carry, it allows the firefighter on the roof to identify the pivot point so he may relieve the firefighter on the ground ladder and pivot the ladder to the roof. Third, should you have to use rope to get a ladder to the roof or other floor level, the balance point shows you where to tie a five-foot bowline knot. Tie a bowline knot with a five-foot loop. Place the loop through the rungs at the balance point and bring it all the way to the end of the ladder. Then place the loop around the ladder beams, pull up the slack, and dress the knot. This is a fast and effective way to get a ladder to the roof or other floor level.

All firefighters learn to use roof ladders when working on pitched roofs. But the pitch of the roof and the ridge vent can prevent the hooks of the roof ladder from properly engaging the roof and can result in your being able to pull a roof ladder off the roof with only a slight tug (see photo 3). To avoid this, take the hook of a halligan tool and drive it into the roof just past the ridge (see photos 4, 5). This enables you to safely secure the hook(s) of the roof ladder to the roof.5 As always, when working on a pitched roof without a roof ladder, use a halligan tool or pickhead ax with the hook driven in for balance (see photo 6).

Station 2: Rescue with Ground Ladders

Rescuing victims with ladders is probably one of the more stressful activities on the fireground. At this station, we set up a two-person rescue evolution. Participants are forced to communicate with each other and the victim(s) and to make very difficult decisions. All the rescue scenarios are based on real-life situations. There are no right or wrong answers, only suggestions. All scenarios were conducted from the second-floor window with overhead wires directly adjacent to the window.


Have the more experienced firefighter (not always the officer) carry the butt end of the ladder when placing to ensure the ladder is placed a proper distance away from the building and clear of any obstructions. This is a judgment call.

How do you enter the window from the ladder? Once you have cleaned out the entire window, straddle the windowsill, stay low, and protect your head and shoulders by keeping out of the “chimney.” Use your leg and foot on the inside to feel for a solid floor area (see photo 7). Once you find the floor, swing into the building, all the while staying as low as possible.

You can practice the following rescue scenarios while wearing full protective gear. Because of equipment logistics at the FDIC, firefighters did not wear SCBAs in these scenarios.

Scenario 1: Rescue a Victim at the Second-Floor Window

Choose a ladder from the apparatus parked around the corner that is suitable after scene size-up. You may get to the back of a building and have the wrong size ladder; then you must decide whether to make do with the existing ladder or go back for another one (perhaps using the ladder drag!). If you choose to get a different ladder, one firefighter should stay with the victim and try and calm him down. Never use the phrase “Don’t jump!” Victims are already in a very panicked state and may hear “#!&* jump!”


Two firefighters must raise the ladder, being cautious of the wires, to the victim’s window. The victim, who is conscious, will then climb out onto the ladder facing the firefighter. One firefighter will go up while the other heels the ladder. When the firefighter gets to the victim, the victim throws his arms around the firefighter. The point of this scenario is to show that you need to continually talk to the victim and assist him rather than carry him down. The proper technique for descent is for the victim to face the ladder and for the firefighter to have both hands around the ladder beams (see photo 8). Should the victim panic or start to fall, you can simply pull yourself tightly against the ladder, pinning the victim.

Note that at this point, you and the victim are safely on the ladder and out of the building. This rescue has already been made. Take your time and move slowly and cautiously down the ladder.

Case study: The famous Paxton Hotel Fire in Chicago, Illinois, in the mid-1990s was an early morning fire in a five-story tenement. Numerous rescues were made with ground ladders. Footage showed many victims falling from ladders, sometimes taking firefighters with them. The Chicago Fire Department was hampered by poor access, downed wires, and cold temperatures.

Lesson learned: If at all possible, try and pin the victim to the ladder for his safety but, more importantly, for yours.

Scenario 2: Rescue Two Victims on the Second Floor

You rescue a victim at the second-floor window, but as you descend the ladder with him, the victim hurriedly climbs back up the ladder and attempts to reenter the window. The point of this scenario is to get firefighters out of the habit of tunnel vision.


Ask the victim if there is anyone else in the building. If so, get a name, an age, and perhaps a last location. We have all heard stories of victims saying “My baby is still in there!” and the “baby” turns out to be a dog, a cat, or a 30-year-old son. Find out exactly who you will be looking for-this will aid you in your search. The firefighter at the window must communicate with the heel firefighter when he is going in to search. It is very important to tell the victim to stay put until the second firefighter comes up to the window.

Let’s take the time to talk about overhead wires. In all the confusion, you may lose focus of the wires. Always maintain focus of electric, cable, and phone wires. In some areas of Boston, Massachusetts, electric, cable, and telephone wires all are wrapped in the same line. Be very cautious around any wires.

Case study: In Bridgeport, Connecticut, two firefighters were raising a ground ladder at night, in the fog. The ladder never touched a wire but electricity from the wire arced more than three feet. The taller firefighter, whose hands were higher on the ladder, was killed instantly. The shorter firefighter had to retire because of his injuries.

Scenario 3: Rescue with a Disappearing Victim

You see a victim in the second-floor window. As you carefully raise the ladder around the overhead obstructions, you inadvertently take your eyes off the window. When you look back up, the victim is gone. Where did the victim go-back inside the room? Did the victim pass out from the products of combustion right at the windowsill? Did the engine or ladder company reach the victim first from the inside and remove him? Always maintain eye contact and verbal communication with the victim. Reassure the victim that you are coming and tell him not to go anywhere.

Prior to any rescue, you must decide who is going up the ladder first. Do not wait until the last minute-have preassigned positions if possible.

Scenario 4: Rescue with Multiple Victims

You see a victim at the window, and you ascend the ladder. As you reach the window, the victim hands you a baby. What do you do? Now there is a potential problem. Do you bring the baby down and then go back up to get the other victim, or does the firefighter heeling the ladder come up the ladder for the baby while you bring down the victim? Because the ladder is only to the second-floor window, it may not seem like a big problem, but what if this were a rescue on the third floor?

You must communicate with each other. The situation can be compounded if the victim climbs out onto the ladder with the baby. Now there are two victims and possibly two firefighters on the top half of the ladder. It may make better sense for you to meet the other firefighter halfway.

Instead of heeling the ladder in the traditional manner from underneath, try heeling the ladder from the front by placing a boot and hand firmly on a beam. This way the firefighter heeling the ladder can get a better idea of what is going on. If there are only two firefighters, do what has to be done, but be as safe as possible.

Be very careful if there is nobody to heel the ladder. If both firefighters are on the ladder, heel the ladder with a halligan tool against the base if you can-it is better than nothing at all. Make sure that one of you maintains sight of and communication with the victim at the window at all times.

Scenario 5: Rescue a Child from the Second-Floor Window

You see a victim in the window and begin to carefully raise the ladder. Suddenly, the victim is dangling a child out the window toward you. This situation would be worse from a third-floor window.

You will have to communicate with the other firefighter. One of you may be able to reach the child from the ground while the other steadies the ladder, or you may have to set the ladder quickly. Do not take your eyes off either victim!

Scenario 6: Rescue a Baby Thrown from the Second-Floor

You see a victim at the window and carefully begin to raise the ladder. Suddenly, the victim at the window throws a baby out to you. In most cases, one of you will let go of the ladder to catch the baby. Be very careful; there are live wires above and if one of you lets go of the ladder unexpectedly, the ladder may fall into the wires. Always maintain communication with fellow firefighters. Protect firefighters first.

Case study: Washington, D.C., Fire Department Truck Company 4 received the Company of the Year Award for the following rescue. A firefighter was entering the second-floor window to search when a woman appeared at the adjacent third-floor window and threw the child toward the firefighter. The firefighter caught the child. Not one second later, the woman jumped out the window toward the firefighter. Miraculously, the firefighter managed to catch her as well and remain on the ladder.

Lesson learned: If a victim is panicked enough to throw a baby out the window, rest assured that conditions are so untenable that the victim will be following right behind the baby! Do not get tunnel vision and assume this will be the only victim in trouble.

Scenario 7: Rescue of Panicked Person

You see a victim in the window and carefully raise the ladder. As the ladder tip nears the window, the victim grabs the tip and tries to wrestle his way on. What do you do? The victim may be so panicked that talking will get you nowhere-but don’t quit trying! The goal is to keep the victim from getting on an unbalanced or poorly positioned ladder.

You have several options. First, set the ladder to the proper length and “roll” it into position (practiced in Station 1). Second, if conditions permit, raise the ladder to the proper length and lower it to the victim. Third, raise the ladder to the proper length, and you and another firefighter “push” the ladder up to the victim. If the victim decides to try and jump out onto the ladder, use the ladder to push him back into the window. Pin the victim against the building if you absolutely have to. This is a very stressful situation for both rescuers and victim; therefore, make it as safe as possible for everyone involved.

Scenario 8: Vent-Enter-Search (VES)

You have raised the ladder to the second floor and brought a victim down the ladder. Once on the ground, the victim says, “My baby is still in there!” After asking the appropriate questions about the victim, you ascend the ladder with a tool (preferably a pike pole) to VES the room. VES is a “high anxiety” move, even for departments where it is a normal procedure. First and foremost, you must announce on the radio, which all firefighters must and should have, that you are beginning VES. Be very specific as to your location in the fire building. Keep in mind that this is a limited search-one room.


Enter the window with the proper technique discussed earlier. Feel the floor thoroughly underneath the window. Make sure you do not miss a baby or small child under the pile of window shades, blinds, drapes, and glass beneath the window (especially if you forced the window open). If visibility permits, first shut the bedroom or apartment door to buy some time. Depending on conditions, briefly open the ceiling to make sure there is no fire above you. One trick of the trade is to use the butt end of the pike pole to make several holes in the ceiling. It will go through gypsum board and plaster faster and easier than the hook end. Make sure you report the results on the radio.

If visibility is poor, you can try one of two techniques. First, hook the pike pole on the windowsill with the handle out directly into the room. Start your search pattern on the wall. When you get to the bedroom or apartment door, shut it. When you reach the pike pole handle, you will have made a thorough search of the room. Second, hook the pike pole on the windowsill, maintain contact with the pike pole, and search the room. You can search an average size bedroom effectively in this manner. After completing the search, radio your results and that you are out of the building.6

Station 3: Tower and Aerial Ladders

You must have very specific SOPs for ladder use-this also applies to tower and aerial ladders. First and foremost, make room for ladder company apparatus on the fireground, generally in front of the building. Obviously many factors are involved in placement-building size, fire location, and so on. However, do not place the engine company in front of the building, where it will block the incoming ladders. “You can stretch hose a mile, but you can’t stretch a ladder one inch,” to quote Tom Brennan.

Place the ladder company in the most advantageous area for ladder use-rescue operations, firefighter access to the roof or upper floors, and horizontal ventilation (life, access, and ventilation). Incorporate into your SOPs these helpful hints for “spotting” the ladder company:

  • Your department paid an enormous amount of money for the ladder company; use it! Use it at all multistory buildings. Take the extra time to get the ladder to a window, the roof, and so on. Do not wait until there is a chance you might need it. The ladder may play a pivotal role in the rescue of a firefighter or victim when seconds count.
  • Depending on the fire’s location, try to cover two sides of the building. Place the apparatus turntable at the corner of the building.
  • Check the surrounding area before raising the ladder. Use a six-foot pike pole to quickly measure how far out the outriggers will go. Make sure no equipment is placed in the turntable’s path when firefighters empty out cargo doors.
  • When positioning the aerial ladder for entry, place the ladder two to six inches out from the bottom of the windowsill, even with the bottom, and toward the leeward side. This allows for easier access. Completely clean out the window with a tool (make it a door) and use the same entry methods described earlier.
  • When positioning a tower ladder for entry, place the top rail of the bucket two to six inches out from the bottom of the windowsill, even with the bottom, and toward the leeward side. This is more important for egress because firefighters can bail out directly into the bucket or victims can be pulled directly out the window into the bucket.
  • If the angle is low enough to “walk” up the ladder, bend down and keep both hands on the rails, and slide them along as you ascend the ladder. You can even place a tool on the rail and slide it up as well. Make sure you look forward as you ascend and not down at your feet. At this station, participants had a tendency to stare down at the ladder rungs as they walked up the ladder. Not one of them saw the wire placed over the ladder halfway up, and each firefighter ran into the wire.
  • If you are operating an aerial ladder that has no piping or nozzles at the tip, you can use the ladder to ventilate windows. As with the ground ladders, place the tip of the aerial at the top third of the window and extend it through the window a few inches. Be very careful, depending on the angle of inclination, not to compromise the integrity of the ceiling by pushing through it. Once the tip is through the glass, gently bring it down to the bottom of the sill. This will keep glass from riding down the rails of the aerial. Never use side-to-side motions. This can be a very effective and quick way to assist interior crews on upper floors with horizontal ventilation. As always, be careful of areas below the windows being vented.

Communication with all firefighters is essential when working with ladders. Does the ladder company have coordinated rescue and ventilation with the engine company attack? Does the engine company attacking the fire know where the ladder company is? On or above the fire floor? Is there a rescue taking place at a window? If so, is there a plan to protect rescuer and victim? Is a backup line coming?

Discipline is imperative on the fireground. Each unit has a job that is pivotal to the operation. Avoid the “moth to the flame” syndrome, and maintain focus on the task at hand. Fire attack dictates all crews work as a finely tuned machine. If every unit on the fireground coordinates tasks, the end result will be a positive, safe one.

In 2000, there were 1.708 million working fires in the United States. That is an average of 4,680 fires every day and 195 fires every hour. Since 1984, on average, 90 firefighters have died in the line of duty every year-that is one firefighter every four days.7 Do not let this trend continue because you were not prepared.

This article is dedicated to Dana Hannon, one of the original members of the Laddering H.O.T. instructor team, who was killed September 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center. He will be missed.

Endnotes


  1. Fredericks, Andrew A. “Little Drops of Water: 50 Years Later, Part 2,” Fire Engineering, March 2000, 113-135.
  2. Tracy, Gerald, FDIC H.O.T. class “High-Rise Operations.”
  3. National Fire Protection Association.
  4. McGrail, David, FDIC H.O.T. class “Standpipe Operations.”
  5. Ciampo, Mike, FDIC 2001.
  6. Rescue compilation by Walter Webb and Dana Hannon.
  7. McGrail, David, FDIC H.O.T. class “Standpipe Operations.”


MATHEW RUSH is a seven-year member of the Austin (TX) Fire Department, where he is currently a driver on Ladder Co. 1. He is an FDIC Hands-On Training instructor for “Truck Company Operations: Laddering” and an FDIC West Hands-On Training instructor for “Engine Company Operations: Handline Stretching and Advancing.”

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